“If you really loved me…”
How many people, when they’re talking about Mr or Mrs Right, are referring to themselves?
Most of us haven’t been taught that it’s how we are thinking about ourselves and others that is causing our unhappiness. We are largely unaware of how much responsibility for our happiness we are putting outside of ourselves – and therefore how much demand and expectation we are putting on others.
I clearly remember when I was younger (and not so young!) the feeling of being ‘in love:’ ecstatic, exuberant, blissful, ridiculously positive about everything, completely obsessed with the object of my ‘love,’ totally ungrounded and well… mad!
And then? The same phenomenon experienced by every couple I’ve ever worked with: inevitably, that initial euphoria wore off and the relationship mostly just started to feel like hard work.
Would I denounce that temporary high; warn adolescents that ‘the honeymoon will end,’ advise them to skip that phase and become emotionally ‘mature’? Hell no — that pleasurable experience is great for the body: alive, vital, open, soft, generous, confident, positive and warm.
The thing is though, that when we think another person is causing all those wonderful feelings, we are putting our happiness and wellbeing into the hands of something external, transient and impermanent. When we think our happiness is dependent on external conditions we live as a victim, and we have no option but to try and control others, ourselves and our circumstances if we want to stay happy.
This is not only a burden on me; it’s also a burden on my ‘lover.’ When I think that another person has caused my happiness, then I expect them to keep coming up with the goodies to maintain my feeling.
Likewise, it also follows that if I’m feeling bad it’s because of them too, and they should do something about it. For example, it seems to be an unspoken law that if one person in a couple is feeling sad or hurt it must be because of something the other has done (or not done), and that even if it isn’t, they should ‘care’ enough to do something about it.
If we’ve been around the relationship block a few times we know, really, that this kind of contract is not sustainable, but we set out anyway down the slippery slope of desperately trying to hold on to these blissful feelings, hoping against hope that this time will be different.
When yet again the ‘love’ ebbs and the relationship deteriorates into mediocrity, power struggles, resentment, jealousy, disappointment, feelings of entrapment and a sense of losing oneself, we can end up feeling hopeless, bitter and cynical about love and relationships.
What on earth is going on, that something that starts out so pleasurable so commonly follows this trajectory?
The Unspoken Contract
Underlying our relationships is often the unspoken contract that “You should keep me happy and I should keep you happy.”
Our focus is so often on taking rather than giving. Even when it looks like giving to another, all too often it’s still self-serving behaviour, thinly disguised.
Some questions to ask yourself: do you go into a new relationship looking for what you can get, or what you can give? Do you have a check list of everything you’re looking for in a perfect partner, or of everything you’re offering?
If we got honest with ourselves, I reckon most of us, even an apparently ‘happy, fulfilled’ person, would discover that actually we are ‘waiting’: waiting for something or someone outside of ourselves to make us feel more complete.
When we see this, it’s no surprise that ‘love’ wears off. It stands to reason that if both people have entered into a relationship to try and ‘get love,’ then they’ll suck each other dry sooner or later.
One of the most confronting truths I’ve had to face in myself has been the realisation that in all my previous relationships, I’ve never been unconditionally in Love. What I’ve called ‘love’ has included wonderful moments of intimacy, closeness and deep connection, but always with the knowledge that certain things must be sacrificed or compromised in order to maintain the benefits.
There’s been a little bit of wriggle room for each partner to follow their own impulses, but only if they don’t deviate too far from what the other wants.
The costs may seem insignificant at first: maybe a slight restriction on what I feel I can do, who I can be with, or how I can express myself. I may brush them off for a while — these are just small compromises that are part of being in relationship, right? We’re a ‘couple’ now, so ‘the relationship’ comes first — of course you have to shelve certain aspects of your own life… right?
In time though, these ‘small sacrifices’ have always become intolerable, the ‘benefits’ no longer outweighing them. This is not surprising, as conforming to what we think someone else wants rubs right up against the vital human need for freedom and autonomy.
Nothing kills the enjoyment of giving more than a feeling of expectation or demand from the person we want to give to. Just think about how you feel when you’re about to get up and make your partner a cup of tea and they say, “About time you made me a cuppa, isn’t it?”
I’m with Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, when he says that our natural state is one of compassion: that humans genuinely enjoy giving and loving when it is freely given and received.
“Just let me get on and love you”
Most people want intimacy and yet most of us also abhor the feeling of being trapped.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) says that all humans share universal needs, such as connection, support, intimacy and understanding; that we thrive when these and other needs are met and suffer in some way when they are not. In our couple-based culture, it’s an easy leap from this piece of information to the conclusion that therefore our partner is responsible for meeting those needs for us and to begin expecting — demanding, even — them to meet all of our needs. In turn, we then feel obligated to meet all of theirs.
However, this is a gross misinterpretation of the spirit of NVC. Applying the principles of NVC leads to a quality of connection with ourselves and others, which inspires a natural giving from the heart. Along with this is a sincere desire for the freedom and growth of our loved ones, rather than a drive to keep them limited to what suits us.
Why would we assume just because we enjoy someone’s company and want to share aspects of our lives with each other, that they are suddenly responsible for meeting all of our needs?
Resentment, anger, feeling of ‘no choice,’ finding it hard to say no, thoughts and speech full of ‘shoulds’ and ‘have tos’ and keeping a mental scorecard of who owes what, are some of the dead giveaways that we are stuck in a pattern of expecting each other to meet all our needs.
When we demand that someone acts in ways that keep us happy rather than being themselves, it’s no wonder that over time both start feeling cramped and resentful.
Obviously, in a healthy intimate relationship, a lot of our needs will be met. What determines whether this will continue to be a pleasurable exchange or deteriorate into a drudgery of obligations, is how much self-responsibility each person is willing to take for their own happiness.
What to do, then?
To change a lifetime’s habit of putting responsibility for our needs outside of ourselves requires courage: it can be confronting to realise how we manipulate others for our own ends.
But with support to understand how we have been conditioned, we can lighten up on ourselves and enjoy freeing ourselves and others from the grip of these behaviours and beliefs.
Then we are free to begin to create fulfilling, authentic relationships and stop making excuses for not living our own lives.